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Attorney Grievance Commision of Maryland v. Ambe

Court of Appeals of Maryland

October 21, 2019


          Argued: September 8, 2019

          Circuit Court for Montgomery County Case No. 455261-V

          Barbera, C.J., McDonald Watts Hotten Getty Booth Adkins, Sally D., (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned) JJ.


          BARBERA, C.J.

         Petitioner, the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland, acting through Bar Counsel, filed in this Court a Petition for Disciplinary or Remedial Action against Respondent, Jude Ambe, regarding a complaint filed against him by a former client, Hans Yondo Ngale ("Mr. Ngale"). The petition alleges violations of the Maryland Attorneys' Rules of Professional Conduct ("MARPC") 19-301.1 (Competence), 19-301.2 (Scope of Representation), 19-301.3 (Diligence), 19-301.4 (Communication), 19-301.5 (Fees), 19-301.15 (Safekeeping Property), 19-301.16 (Declining or Terminating Representation), 19-303.3 (Candor), 19-308.1 (Bar Admission and Disciplinary Matters), and 19-308.4 (Misconduct).

         On September 20, 2018, Petitioner filed its petition. This Court transmitted the matter to the Circuit Court for Montgomery County and designated the Honorable James A. Bonifant ("the hearing judge") to conduct an evidentiary hearing and make proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. The hearing took place on February 13-14, 2019. At the hearing, the judge heard testimony from Respondent and Mr. Ngale.

         We adopt in large part the hearing judge's proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. Based on the rule violations that Respondent committed, as well as the aggravating and mitigating factors we have identified, we disbar Respondent.


         The Hearing Judge's Findings of Fact

         We summarize here the hearing judge's findings of fact, which are supported by clear and convincing evidence.


         Respondent was admitted to the New York Bar in 2009. He is not a member of the Maryland Bar.[1] During his legal career, Respondent operated an immigration law practice. While representing Mr. Ngale, Respondent maintained an office in Montgomery County, Maryland.

         Mr. Ngale is a citizen of the Republic of Cameroon. His native language is Bakweri and he speaks Pidgin English. He entered the United States through Mexico in April 2016 and immediately applied for asylum. In a written statement given to the Department of Homeland Security, Mr. Ngale claimed he was imprisoned and tortured by Cameroonian officials. While being transferred from one facility to another during his imprisonment, Mr. Ngale escaped and traveled to Nigeria, then to Mexico.

         1. First Master Calendar Hearing

         The Department of Homeland Security held Mr. Ngale in a detention center in Adelanto, California from April 17, 2016, to November 2016. Mr. Ngale received a "Notice to Appear" before the United States Immigration Court ("Immigration Court"), issued June 9, 2016. The Notice alleged that Mr. Ngale was subject to removal proceedings because he was not a United States citizen or national, and he entered the country without proper documentation. The Immigration Court scheduled a Master Calendar Hearing for June 22, 2016, to identify the issues in Mr. Ngale's case and schedule deadlines and future hearings.

         Mr. Ngale spoke to Respondent on the telephone shortly before and after his first Master Calendar Hearing on June 22, 2016. Mr. Ngale had learned of Respondent through Norbert Chingo, another detainee at the Adelanto Detention Center. Respondent also represented Norbert Chingo. Norbert Chingo's brother, Derrick Chingo ("Mr. Chingo"), knows Respondent through an adult soccer club in Maryland.

         During the calls on June 22, 2016, Mr. Ngale hired Respondent to represent him regarding his asylum petition and request to be released on bond. Mr. Ngale and Respondent later disagreed about the terms of payment reached during those phone calls. The hearing judge found that Respondent agreed to: (1) represent Mr. Ngale; (2) litigate the asylum petition before the Immigration Court and help secure Mr. Ngale's release on bond; and (3) charge a $5, 000 flat fee that included travel expenses. Mr. Ngale was to remit $1, 400 immediately and pay the balance over time after his release.

         Respondent claimed that during the representation, Mr. Ngale permitted Mr. Chingo to act on his behalf. In his statement under oath to Bar Counsel, Respondent stated that he provided Mr. Chingo with a copy of a retainer agreement for Mr. Ngale. At trial, Respondent testified to the contrary and admitted the terms of the representation were never memorialized in writing.

         2. Second Master Calendar Hearing

         Upon the advice of Respondent, Mr. Ngale appeared pro se at the first Master Calendar Hearing and requested a continuance to secure representation. The Immigration Court granted the request and scheduled a second Master Calendar Hearing for July 13, 2016. On June 27, 2016, Mr. Ngale's brother-in-law, Elvis Munjong, received $1, 400 from Mr. Ngale's family via Western Union and gave it to Respondent. There are no billing records for that transaction. Respondent could not confirm that he gave a receipt to Elvis Munjong when he received the payment, but he testified that he later provided Mr. Chingo with a receipt. Respondent did not produce any receipts or records of the payment, however.

         3. Third Master Calendar Hearing

         On July 12, 2016, Respondent filed a Notice of Appearance on Mr. Ngale's behalf and a Motion for Continuance of the July 13, 2016, second Master Calendar Hearing. The Immigration Court granted the motion, scheduled a third Master Calendar Hearing for August 11, 2016, and stated in the order, "The Court expects both pleadings as well as all application[s] for relief to be filed at the next hearing or they will be deemed waived/abandoned." Respondent did not inform Mr. Ngale of his intention to request a continuance or that it was granted.

         Respondent and Mr. Ngale spoke on the phone on July 12, 2016, and Respondent instructed Mr. Ngale to fill out a Form I-589, Application for Asylum and for Withholding Removal. In late July 2016, Respondent received by mail these documents and Mr. Ngale's handwritten narrative about his captivity in Cameroon.

         On August 9, 2016, Respondent travelled to California and met Mr. Ngale at the Adelanto Detention Center to prepare his asylum application before the upcoming third Master Calendar Hearing. After that meeting, Respondent returned to his hotel room to finalize the application. Respondent testified at the evidentiary hearing, and also under oath in a statement to Bar Counsel, that immediately preceding the third Master Calendar Hearing on August 11, 2016, he and Mr. Ngale reviewed and edited the application from beginning to end. The hearing judge found that Respondent's testimony was not credible regarding how substantively Respondent reviewed the asylum application with Mr. Ngale. Rather, Mr. Ngale's testimony established that Respondent rushed through filling out the application. Mr. Ngale's testimony further established that Respondent did not give Mr. Ngale an opportunity to read the application before appearing in court. Respondent instructed Mr. Ngale to sign the application in front of the Immigration Court judge and just say "yes" if asked whether Mr. Ngale had read the documents. Respondent filed this application with the Immigration Court, and a hearing on the merits ("Merits Hearing") was scheduled for November 7, 2016.

         4. First Bond Hearing

         The Immigration Court judge also scheduled a bond hearing ("Bond Hearing") for October 19, 2016. Respondent filed a motion to appear by telephone. He testified that the court denied the motion, and "for administrative reasons" rescheduled the Bond Hearing to November 7, 2016, the same day as the Merits Hearing. Contrary to this testimony, the hearing judge determined, based on a Show Cause Order issued by the Immigration Court, that Respondent appeared via telephone at the October 19, 2016, Bond Hearing and requested the continuance.

         5. Merits Hearing and Second Bond Hearing

         Respondent failed to appear at the November 7, 2016, Merits and Bond Hearings. He had traveled to Cameroon on October 31, 2016, and returned on November 8, 2016. Respondent did not file any motions for withdrawal, postponement, or to appear telephonically, nor did he contact the Immigration Court to give notice of his absence. Mr. Ngale requested a continuance at the Merits Hearing and the Immigration Court denied it. Forced to proceed without counsel, Mr. Ngale represented himself and gave testimony inconsistent with his application for asylum. For example, the torture described in the asylum application included electrocution, but this description was omitted in Mr. Ngale's testimony. The application also described with detail the political group Mr. Ngale claimed to be a member of, but Mr. Ngale testified that he did not "really know much about the group" when questioned by the judge.

         Based on those inconsistencies, the Immigration Court found Mr. Ngale not credible and denied his asylum application. He was given thirty days to file an appeal. The Immigration Court also ordered Mr. Ngale to be released on $25, 000 bond.

         6. Order to Show Cause

         When Respondent missed the Merits and Bond Hearings on November 7, 2016, the Immigration Court issued an Order to Show Cause regarding his absence. In an untimely response to the Immigration Court, Respondent alleged he traveled to Cameroon on October 30, 2016, due to a family emergency.

         7. Release on Bond and Appeal

         Mr. Ngale called Respondent the day after the Merits and Bond Hearings to get assistance with securing the bond for his release. Respondent located a bond company who wrote and arranged to pay the $25, 000 bond and associated expenses. Respondent directed Mr. Ngale to travel to Maryland after his release.

         Mr. Chingo gave Respondent $6, 000 on Mr. Ngale's behalf for the bond and related expenses. Respondent did not deposit the $6, 000 in an attorney trust account. There are no records about the bond expenses, nor documents showing how the money was spent except for a deposit receipt from Bank of America. Respondent testified at the evidentiary hearing that the bond premium and processing fee totaled $3, 850. However, Respondent could not properly account for the remaining $2, 150. Respondent stated under oath to Bar Counsel that he agreed to assist with the bond for an additional $1, 250. When questioned at the evidentiary hearing about how the $6, 000 was allocated, Respondent omitted the $1, 250 from his testimony. Respondent also gave conflicting testimony on the various expenses associated with transferring Mr. Ngale from California to Maryland. He could not, however, provide any supporting documentation for those expenses.

         In Maryland, Respondent and Mr. Ngale met to discuss appealing Mr. Ngale's Order of Removal, and Respondent proposed a $1, 500 flat fee. They disputed the funds already owed to Respondent, and Mr. Ngale paid $500 towards the appeal. Respondent did not deposit the funds in an attorney trust account. Respondent filed a Notice of Appeal with the Board of Immigration Appeals on December 5, 2016, and entered his appearance on behalf of Mr. Ngale.

         8. Termination

         After the Notice of Appeal was filed, Respondent refused to discuss the appeal with Mr. Ngale unless Mr. Ngale paid more money. Mr. Ngale terminated the representation in December 2016, and requested his case file. Respondent refused to turn over the file and informed Mr. Ngale that he needed the file to respond to the Immigration Court's Show Cause Order. At the evidentiary hearing, Respondent further testified that the file was Respondent's property. Mr. Ngale's new attorney, Ms. Beach-Oswald, mailed Respondent a letter on February 23, 2017, to inform him that she now represented Mr. Ngale and again requested his case file.[2] Respondent failed to respond.

         Respondent never filed a motion with the Immigration Court to withdraw his appearance as Mr. Ngale's attorney. On March 8, 2017, the Board of Immigration Appeals mailed Respondent a briefing schedule, directing Respondent to file Mr. Ngale's appeal brief by March 30, 2017. Respondent did not inform Mr. Ngale or Ms. Beach-Oswald of the briefing schedule or that his appeal brief was due by the end of the month.

         9. Bar Counsel's Investigation

         Mr. Ngale filed a complaint against Respondent with the Attorney Grievance Commission on April 17, 2017. In his response, Respondent made assertions that contradict his response to the Show Cause Order and his testimony at the evidentiary hearing. Principally, Respondent explained that his trip to Cameroon was pre-planned, contrary to the family emergency he cited in his response to the Show Cause Order to the Immigration Court. Respondent further explained that when the Immigration Court rescheduled Mr. Ngale's October 19, 2016, Bond Hearing to November 7, 2016, Respondent knew this date conflicted with his travel plans and informed Mr. Ngale about the conflict. Furthermore, Respondent averred to Bar Counsel that Mr. Ngale and his new attorney are using him as a "scapegoat" to re-open Mr. Ngale's case. As such, he was "at a lost [sic] why instead of thanking me; [sic] Mr. Ngale is filing a complaint against me."

         II. The Hearing Judge's Conclusions of Law

         The hearing judge determined that Respondent violated MARPC 19-301.1, 19-301.2(a), 19-301.3, 19-301.4(a) and (b), 19-301.5(a), 19-301.15(a) and (c), 19-301.16(a) and (d), 19-303.3(a), 19-308.1(a), and 19-308.4(a), (c), and (d). Respondent excepts to some of the hearing judge's findings of fact and conclusions of law; Bar Counsel excepts to none. We shall address each factual finding and conclusion ...

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